Is hot desking really all it's cracked up to be?

Wednesday, 01 May 2019

Jill Rowbotham photo
Jill Rowbotham

    The success of hot desking has been widely debated, but Lendlease GM of workplace and chance Natalie Slessor says it's all about balance.

    Comedian Kitty Flanagan’s send-up of hot-desking for the ABC’s The Weekly is funny, but painful to watch. Playing an earnest and compliant employee, she stacks a trolley with computer gear, working papers, pot plants and pictures and hunts down a vacant desk on a different floor from where she normally works. Including set-up, lunch break, collegial chats, bathroom breaks and pack-down, she quips: “That was an eight-hour day… I only worked two hours 40.”

    It is good satire, exaggerated for effect. However, directors should be aware that while workplace densities have dived from 20sq m per person to 13sq m or less over the past 20 years, staff aren’t necessarily doing well in open-plan offices, with hot (“shared”) desking, and activity based work (ABW) environments in which they move between zones set up for different tasks.

    “There is a balance to be struck,” says Lendlease general manager of workplace and change, Natalie Slessor, who led the consolidation of four offices and 2000 staff into 11 floors of one of Sydney’s Barangaroo towers in 2016. She has some clear advice for directors: “It’s easy to make a very efficient workplace that’s incredibly cost-effective — and as a shareholder business, we need to be very mindful of how we use resources, including real estate — but the experience your people have every day is a huge part of their performance.”

    Staff in shared offices face increased distractions, according to a 2017 study of 1000 Australian employees published in Applied Ergonomics. This finding is backed up by the University of Sydney’s Lina Engelen, who published a review Is activity-based working impacting health, work performance and perceptions? in Building Research & Information. Engelen’s team analysed 17 studies with 36,000 participants, including Australians, concluding that while ABW can be good for interaction and communication, it is bad forprivacy and concentration.

    “People literally cannot think,” Bond Business School assistant professor of organisational behaviour Libby Sander confirms. “They need time to do focused work. Managers imagine open-plan automatically has benefits for collaboration, problem-solving and innovation”. She argues hot-desking carries added risks, jeopardising a worker’s sense of identity and undermining collaboration and communication if the team cannot sit together. “It can work, but one size does not fit all.”

    Slessor agrees. “It doesn’t matter what your space strategy is as long as it’s really well-aligned to what kind of business or brand you are, or culture you want to create.” For example, she says, a business that wants to retain obvious hierarchy should design space accordingly, while Lendlease’s largely open-plan environment with a mix of spaces accommodates its team-based approach, in which groups of about 10 are allocated to large tables or small areas and then choose how to operate — some always occupy the same seats, others are “hot”.

    “It’s up to them, because they are grown-ups,” Slessor says. “We measured the heck out of this workplace, our people are happy.” A bonus is that Lendlease won the Best Workplace Project 2018 in the Property Council of Australia Awards.

    Open-plan is here to stay and that means hot-desking, ABW and other iterations intended to boost collaboration in the workplace. However, directors need to think about more than lease costs. Sander warns about talent retention. “People will vote with their feet if it’s not working for them,” she says. Slessor agrees: “The battleground for the company director is how do we get and retain the best talent, not ‘how many square metres do I occupy?’”

    Principles for directors:

    • Open-plan is here to stay: it’s how you manage it that matters.
    • Strike a balance: cost efficiency vs staff experience.
    • Consider how it will reflect your culture. Talent retention is the priority.

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